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Jessie T. Beals with John Burroughs (Library of Congress)

Jessie T. Beals with John Burroughs (Library of Congress)

Jessie Tarbox Beals was a hustler.  She was the first woman to be hired as a staff photographer at an American newspaper, The Buffalo Courier, in 1902.  She lugged around 50 pounds of photography equipment while wearing a whalebone corset and an enormous hat.  When photographers were locked out of a murder trial, she climbed up to an open transom in the courtroom and snapped a shot that got her a five-column front-page feature.  In other words, she hustled.  A relentless self-promoter, she taught her husband how to develop her photographs so that he could be her assistant

Of photojournalism, Beals states in The Focus, St. Louis, Missouri, 1904:

Newspaper photography as a vocation for women is somewhat of an innovation, but is one that offers great inducements in the way of interest as well as profit. If one is the possessor of health and strength, a good news instinct . . . a fair photographic outfit, and the ability to hustle, which is the most necessary qualification, one can be a news photographer.

Born Jessie Tarbox in 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Beals began photographing as a hobby at the age of 18.  She made a name for herself documenting the exhibits at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, after which she and her husband moved to New York City and set up a successful photography studio, taking portraits of many prominent figures, including Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt.  She also documented life in New York, photographing subjects, rich and poor, throughout the city.

Four young children loading rocks into a wagon while a smaller child sits on the ground playing with his toy ponycart, ca. 1915. Jessie Tarbox Beals (source: Library of Congress)

In 1917, Beals separated from her husband and moved in with a friend in Greenwich Village with her daughter, where she opened The Village Art Gallery and sold prints and postcards of her work while taking portraits of the neighborhood writers and artists in Greenwich Village’s bohemian heyday.  As a single mother, she also continued to hustle to maintain a steady income, leveraging the fact that she was a “woman photographer” and using her keen eye to follow news stories outside of New York.

“Alice sit by the fire” The Village Store in Greenwich Village, 1917. Jessie Tarbox Beals (source: Library of Congress)

In his biography of Beals, Alexander Alland, Sr. quotes a 1906 New York Heraldarticle that states that:

Mrs. Beals is the only woman in the world who has gone to the racetracks as a professional camera operator snapping highspeed automobiles tearing along a cross country speedway in a breathless effort to capture a record.  In  all the turmoil of the roaring engines and the yelling crowds, she remains unmoved as she hurries about from place to place to get characteristic pictures of the men and the machines.

Sadly, Beals hit hard times during the depression.  Broke, and her body broken by a lifetime of hustling, Beals died a pauper at Bellevue Hospital in 1942 at the age of 71.  A Library of Congress biography states that Beals “deserves recognition for her pioneering role in news photography, the excellent quality of her photographs, her struggle to overcome gender-based career obstacles, and her life-long devotion to her career. Her courageous example encouraged other women to pursue photography.”

Alice Austen (1866-1952) at age 22, posed at her home "Clear Comfort" published by Friends of Alice Austen House (source: NYPL)

Alice Austen (1866-1952) at age 22, posed at her home “Clear Comfort” published by Friends of Alice Austen House (source: NYPL)

Just across the river, Alice Austen, born on Staten Island in 1866, was a contemporary of Beals, and was also destined to become one of the first female American photographers.

Austen was abandoned by her father before she was born and grew up using her mother’s maiden name in her maternal grandparents’ home, Clear Comfort, which is now known as the Alice Austin House Museum, a national historic landmark. Austen’s uncle Oswald, a sea captain, taught his ten-year-old niece how to use a camera that he purchased during his travels.  Austen immediately showed a natural skill for photography.  Austen’s other uncle Peter, a professor of chemistry, taught his niece how to develop and print from glass plates, and both uncles set up a darkroom for Austin where she would spend house developing and printing her photographs.

Austen spent a good part of her life traveling, always carrying her cumbersome photography equipment and documenting the people and places she saw.  She became an active and prominent member of Staten Island society until the 1920’s, when her family’s fortune began to wane and then lost everything in the 1929 market crash.

Organ grinder, 1896. Alice Austen (source: NYPL)

Like Beals, Austen eventually ended up a pauper, living in a poor house, until Loren McMillen of the Staten Island Historical Society rescued a cache of her old glass plate negatives and brought them to the attention of Oliver Jensen, who placed her photos in Life Magazine, Holiday, and in a book entitled The Revolt of Women.  Proceeds from the sale of her photographs allowed her to move into a nursing home, where she died peacefully in her sleep in 1952.  “Alice’s work is significant because of its high quality, its range, and its level of expression. For her the creative process was one of composition and selection which allowed her subject matter to speak for itself,” states the Austen House website.

Indeed, Austen’s photographic subjects, like those of Beals, were diverse: her friends and family, immigrants, gardens, street people, views of New York harbor, yet they all tell vivid, unspoken stories.  Her work is also significant in that many of her photos explore themes of femininity and gender roles, depicting her coterie of female friends “fraternizing,” and even, according to a New York Times review of her photographs “hammed it up herself, posing in men’s clothes or short skirts (above the ankle!) and smoking cigarettes.”

Trude and I, masked, short skirts (source: femmes-fatale)

Trude and I, masked, short skirts (source: femmes-fatale)

Jessie Tarbox Beals and Alice Austen led parallel lives that very well may have intersected at one time or another.  Together and apart, they left behind a body of work that gives us an invaluable glimpse of New York City (and beyond) at the turn of the twentieth century.  This description of Austen’s legacy from the Austen House website applies equally to the legacy Beals left behind, “With a natural instinct for photojournalism some forty years before that word was coined, she saw the world with a clear eye and photographed the people and places in it, as they actually appeared, giving us a visual record of more than fifty years of social history.”

 

Resources

Jessie Tarbox Beals:

Alland, Alexander. Jessie Tarbox Beals, First Woman News Photographer. New York: Camera/Graphic Press, 1978.

New York Historical Society Guide to the Jessie Tarbox Beals Photograph Collection

The Library of Congress Jessie Tarbox Beals Collection

 

Alice Austen:

Novotny, Ann, and Alice Austen. Alice’s World: The Life and Photography of an American Original, Alice Austen, 1866-1952. Old Greenwich, Conn: Chatham Press, 1976.

Alice Austen House

Camera Ready: The Alice Austen House, a rustic reminder of an uncommon artist and a cottage shrine to a life in pictures (The Bowery Boys)

 

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The cover from the first edition of PARNASSUS ON WHEELS by Christopher Morley (image: Wikipedia)

The other day I went to my overflowing, sagging bookshelves looking for a book to read on the subway. I almost randomly chose Christopher Morley’s New York, a collection of delightful essays and poems about the city, and I rediscovered a passionate and prolific celebrant of New York who dropped off New York’s literary map. Two of his most captivating novels, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, may be familiar to some—they are truly classic New York titles that are often read and reread. These books were written early in Morley’s distinguished career as a newspaper columnist, essayist, novelist, playwright and enthusiastic bibliophile.

Morley muses in his 1933 book, Internal Revenue, “I had a queer thought the other day, that the two subjects most worth thinking about, for me, are Shakespeare and New York City.” (Internal Revenue.  Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1933.)  Indeed, he was a self-described bard of New York:

Mark all these things: her generous reckless moods,
Proud, spendthrift, swift, assured, and terrible:
And make interpretations of your own.
But just one caveat:
She is not always merely what she seems:
I’d like to have you see her as I do –
The greatest unwrit poem in the world.
(Parsons Pleasure. 1933)

Christopher Morley

Morley wandered about the city, through its nooks and crannies, in search of topics for his essays. One of his favorite stops was to a bookshop, from the most rarefied establishments to the rough and tumble Fourth Avenue stalls. Morley also once reverentially described McSorley’s saloon, which was later immortalized by Joseph Mitchell, another great New York observer.

In his 1939 novel, Kitty Foyle: The Story of a Woman, Morley took on the highly controversial and verboten topics of abortion and the love affairs of unmarried, working women.  The novel was an instant hit, selling more than one million copies, and was made into a movie the following year. It starred Ginger Rogers, who accepted the part only after the abortion was rewritten as a stillborn birth and some other ticklish features were changed.  Rogers received the Academy Award for Best Actress, beating out Katherine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca) and Bette Davis (The Letter). The movie was also nominated for best film and best director. Life Magazine did a spread on the movie with Ginger Rogers wearing a decidedly unglamorous working girl’s dress on the cover. That dark dress with white collar and cuffs, worn by Rogers in the film, is still known today in the garment trade as a “Kitty Foyle Dress.”

I mention Kitty Foyle to illustrate the breadth of this talented, spirited multifaceted man who offered much more than the whimsical pieces for which he is best knownI implore everyone to explore Morley’s work (see list below).  Readers will not only delight in his writings, but will learn about New York in the 1920s and be touched by Morley’s life-affirming, wholesome philosophy of life.  But there is no need to rush, according to advice from Morley himself:

Epitaph for any New Yorker

 I, who all my life had hurried,
Came to Peter’s crowded gate:
And, as usual, was worried,
Fearing that I might be late.
So, when I began to jostle
(I forgot that I was dead),
Patient smiled the old Apostle:
“Take your Eternity,” he said.
(From: Parson’s Pleasure)

Recommended Reading

Christopher Morley’s New York. Illustrated by Walter Jack Duncan.  New York: Fordham University Press, 1988.

The Haunted Bookshop. Garden City, Doubleday Page and Co., 1918.

Reprint____________ Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline.  Phila: J.B. Lippincott, 1955

Kitty Foyle. Phila: J.B. Lippincott, 1939

Parnassus on Wheels. Garden City, Doubleday Page and Co.: 1917

Reprint___________ 1955. Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline.  Phila: J.B. Lippincott, 1955.

 

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Washington Squarimage: Cathryn Swann)

Washington Square Park (image: Cathryn Swan)

As a native New Yorker who grew up downtown, Washington Square Park was, and still is, an enormous part of my life. When I was a little kid, I ran up and down the (old) hills and “swam” in the fountain every summer. That’s how I built up my immunity! When I was a big kid, I hung out there at night with my friends, farther into the night than my parents will ever know (at least until now). Now I bring my own daughter there to swim in the NEW fountain and she spends hours rolling down the NEW hills (others call them “mounds”).

 

Me, with my mom and sister, in Washinton Square Park, ca. 1977

Me, with my mom and sister, in Washinton Square Park, ca. 1977

Washington Square Park was, and is still, the only wide-open space near my house where children and adults can play. It is such a vital part of downtown, dare I say, the heart? That’s why I am so happy there is The Washington Square Park blog.

Cathryn Swann

Cathryn Swan of The Washinton Square Park Blog

This hyper-local blog is written by Cathryn Swan, a writer, blogger, and entrepreneur living in New York City. Cathryn herself is a fascinating person. She grew up in New Jersey where she wrote a fanzine (“The Aurora”) about Bruce Springsteen while she was in high school. After college, she entered the music business and represented superstar artists like Patti Smith, Sarah McLachlan, Aretha Franklin and AC/DC, to name a few!

Tales of Washington Square Park (click to order)

Tales of Washington Square Park (click to order)

During that time, Cathryn started an aromatherapy fragrance line, B-girl (the name The B-girl Guide comes from this – and is inspired by), which has been sold online and in stores like Fred Segal and Nordstrom. B-girl has been written up in ELLE, IN Style, British ELLE, Paris ELLE, Latina, Seventeen, and more.

In 2000, wanting to give ‘back,’ Cathryn started taking on issues as a grassroots activist and organizer relating to helping the environment, animals & wildlife. For the last seven years, she has written The Washington Square Park Blog focusing on the redesign of the landmark park, its history and events, and touching on New York City issues, including the privatization of public space and more.

Cathryn has also written a book about the Park entitled, Tales of Washington Square Park, a compilation of twelve stories from her blog, and it covers the history, personalities, and nature at the park, information on the park’s redesign, and stories about the many personalities whose lives were touched by the park such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Jacobs, Bob Dylan and Dave Chapelle.

All of this and more can be found on The Washington Square Park blog. Visit it today, and while you are there please consider making a donation to the blog, and pick up a copy of Tales of Washington Square Park for just ten dollars while you’re at it!

 

 

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Fourth Avenue, New York (men reading at outdoor book stall), June 4, 1959In 1922, The Douglas Book Shop published Adventures in American Bookshops, Antique Stores and Auction Rooms by Guido Bruno. Despite its title, the book’s focus is the New York bookselling scene that, at times, is not unlike the New York book scene of today.

The following are excerpts from this book, a witty and sometimes snarky review of bookshops and booksellers, that paint a romantic portrait of biblioculture in early 1920’s NYC.

 

bookshop

In New York Book Shops

The location of book streets changes with the growth of a city. Seventy-five years ago the book centre of New York was far downtown on Ann Street; after the Astor Library had opened is doors, Fourth Avenue became the city center and soon was lined with picturesque bookshops. The city grew and twenty-third Street became the Dorado of the book-hunter. Then people began to make immense fortunes and build palaces and mansions on Fifth Avenue, Central Park was opened to the public…and Fifty-ninth Street became the book street of New York. Ever further the city expanded. Harlem grew in population and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street is another shopping center for lovers of books and objects of art. (page 39)

sunwise turn

The Sunwise Turn Bookshop

There they are simply quiet and awfully Batik. Another art shop for art’s sake where the returns more than justify us in being artistic. “See this Batik dress, isn’t it expressive, why don’t people dress like that all the time?” Nobody but a Bahaist or a Rosicrucionist or a Greenacre disciple would be seen dead in it. Then there are books, lots of nice books by nice people and bought by nice people. …The room is decorated in the scheme of a musical chord. A rope would be more appropriate for those who are responsible for its decoration. (page 118)

 

WashingtonSq

Washington Square Book Shop

Just a while before the time when certain people got the ambition to own teas shop in Greenwich Village, the very same people thought it the aim of their lives to be the proprietors of book shops in the vicinity of Washington Square. Still more ambitious were they. They wanted to print their own books. The Boni Brothers (now Boni and Liveright) started their Glebe Magazine there, and published pretty little books by all sorts of authors; Kreymborg here printed his booklets; and many others, whose fame was too short lived to be recorded, half a dozen of them. One sold out to the other and finally Egmont Arens purchased whatever there was left from pretty Renee LaCoste. His became the bookshop of the neighborhood. (page 52)


schulte1Schulte’s Book Store

Scattered about the throbbing city are a few quiet nooks and corners that seem especially made for the lover of antiques. They are not numerous, but full of a certain charm. Book stores, with big boxes in front of the doors, where you can choose for your pennies tomes in old-fashioned binding and printing. Inside are shelves laden with books in delightful disorder left by the book-hunter who looked through them before you. The narrow passageway becomes narrower on each visit you pay to the shop because of newly-arrived books and pamphlets. (page 81)

 

The Man Who Knows His Books

Bruno quotes Mr. Corbett, the proprietor of a shop on Thirty-Eighth Street near Sixth Avenue:

“You know,” he told me once, “the bookseller has a very important mission in life. The writer writes his books, but he doesn’t know into whose hands they will fall, the publisher sells them as merchandise to dealers all over the country, but we little shop-keepers come in contact with real readers. It’s up to us to place something in their hands that might make criminals out of them. A few pennies that we might gain might mean the perdition of lives and souls.” (page 67)

 

An Optimist

Bruno profiles Frank Bender, who at one time was considered one of the leading second-hand book dealers of Fourth Avenue, who says:

…I signed a lease for a little one-story building that stood where the new post-office on Fourth Avenue and Thirteenth Street is at present. I sold enough architectural books to pay my first month’s rent and to buy lumber to fix up my shop. I literally built up my own business. I laid the floors, built the shelves the tables. My shelves remained empty because I had no money to buy books. One day a friendly print dealer came along who must have taken an interest in and pity on me. “Why don’t you hang some prints around your ship to fill out the wall spaces?” he asked. “It will make it look better. I have a bunch of prints I will sell you for forty dollars and I’ll give you six months in which to pay it.” …I accepted his offer, and those prints netted me over five hundred dollars in a surprisingly short time. (page 45)

 

The Den of a Pessimist

Bruno also speaks to E.A. Custer, who has a shop on Fifty-ninth Street near Park:

There was a time when people really loved books and bought them in order to read. The successful man of today has an automobile, has to go out joy-riding after business hours, has to spend his time in cabarets and roadhouses. He needs books only as decorations when he buys a home or furnishes an apartment. And then he leaves it usually to his decorator to choose the most attractive and expensive bindings in keeping with the color scheme of his library. …I tell you New Yorkers don’t know books, don’t ant to know them. The men read newspapers, the women magazines, and the young people trashy novels. (page 42)

bruno

 

‘Way Down in Greenwich Village

The fad of false Bohemia in Greenwich Village has passed. The purple and orange brand of tearooms and of so-called gift shops where art lovers and artistic people from the Bronx and Flatbush assembled, have gone out of existence. The designers and manufacturers of astounding atrocities who called themselves “modern artists” have disappeared. True there are a few short-haired women left, who parade the streets in their unusual clothes, but they, too, will soon move to other parts of the city with the return of the soldiers, and will reassume their real calling in life.” (page120)

 

All excerpts from:

Adventures in American Bookshops, Antique Stores and Auction Rooms By Guido Bruno (Detroit: The Douglas Book Shop, 1922)

 

This and other books by Guido Bruno available online here.

Bruno, Guido, 1884-1942: Adventures in American bookshops, antique stores and auction rooms / (Detroit : The Douglas Book Shop, 1922) (page images at HathiTrust)

Bruno, Guido, 1884-1942: Bruno’s weekly / ([New York, N.Y.] : Guido Bruno, c1915-) (page images at HathiTrust)

Bruno, Guido, 1884-1942: FRAGMENTS FROM GREENWICH VILLAGE. (NEW YORK : GUIDO BRUNO, 1921) (page images at HathiTrust)

Bruno, Guido, 1884-1942: Greenwich village. (New York : Guido Bruno, [1915]) (page images at HathiTrust)

Bruno, Guido, 1884-1942: Sentimental studies : stories of life and love / (New York : [s.n.], 1920) (page images at HathiTrust)

Bruno, Guido, 1884-1942: Songs of the cosmos : 17 rythms / (New York : [s.n., c1915]), also by Charles Augustus Keeler (page images at HathiTrust)

 

bruno 2About Guido Bruno, from Wikipedia:

Guido Bruno (1884–1942) was a well-known Greenwich Village character, and small press publisher and editor, sometimes called ‘the Barnum of Bohemia’.

He was based at his “Garret on Washington Square” where for an admission fee tourists could observe “genuine Bohemian” artists at work. He produced a series oflittle magazine publications from there, including Bruno’s Weekly, Bruno’s Monthly, Bruno’s Bohemia, Greenwich Village, and the 15 cent Bruno Chap Books. [1]

From July 1915 to December 1916, Bruno’s Weekly published poems, short stories, essays, illustrations and plays, as well as special sections, such as “Children’s House,” and “In Our Village.” The publisher was Charles Edison[2] Bruno’s Weekly published Alfred KreymborgDjuna Barnes and Sadakichi HartmannAlfred Douglas, articles on Oscar Wilde, and Richard Aldington on the Imagists. Others were Theodore Albert Schroeder, Edna W. Underwood, and Charles Kains-Jackson.

 

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71ZNXNXW9PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In recent posts, I’ve written about noteworthy New York independent bookstores from years past, namely, Sunwise Turn, founded and operated by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray-Clarke, which was located in midtown Manhattan from 1916 until it closed in 1927 and Gotham Book Mart, founded by Frances Steloff, an institution in literary New York for 87 years.  Another on the list of great New York biblio-hubs is Books & Co., owned and operated by Jeannette Watson from 1977-1997.

Back when Gotham Book Mart was still going strong in Midtown, Books & Co opened up on Madison Avenue and 74th Street, just south of the Whitney Museum.  Rather than becoming Gotham’s rival, the two stores peacefully coexisted as dual Meccas of independent bookselling.  As a matter of fact, according to Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. by Lynn Tillman, it was none other than Frances Steloff who once gave Jeanette Watson one of her most precious bits of advice.  “You never say to customers you’re out of a book; you walk them to the section.  Even if you don’t have the book, they may see something else they like,” (57) Steloff told Watson, and she took it to heart, creating an inviting bookstore where one was welcome to browse without the pressure to purchase.

In the beginning, Books & Co. was a partnership with Burt Britton, formerly the manager of the review books section at The Strand, who established some of Books & Co.’s signature traditions. It was Britton’s idea to have their books signed by the authors to add a personal touch, and he also invented “The Wall.”  Just to the left when you walked in to the store, the Wall represented spectrum of important works of literature, including many translations.  As the Wall became well known, writers came by often to see if their books were on it.  In January 1980, however, after falling on hard times due to lax bookkeeping and a large debt due to overstock (singed books could not be returned) Britton and Watson went separate ways.

After this separation, Watson worked tirelessly to make sure Books & Co. remained the cultural hub it had become.  The store hosted book signings, publishing parties, and author readings every week. Watson also had an art gallery in the store, putting up exhibitions of work she personally liked.  In the 1980’s, the store developed an extensive photography section in and had photography exhibitions of works by Andre Kertesz, Geoffrey James, and Lynn Davis, to name a few.

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Book & Co., founded by Jeannette Watson, was a New York institution from 1977-1997

Big box bookstores also have readings and books signings, but you do not often see the authors themselves browsing their shelves on their own time to see if their books have been placed front and center.  This is all left to publicity departments who pay a premium for advantageous placement.  At Books & Co., it was important to writers and readers alike to be part of the store’s inner-circle, to belong to the Books & Co. family.

When the big box stores started spreading throughout Manhattan, however, things eventually changed for Books & Co., not due to any diminishing sense of community, but due to the almighty dollar.  Sales dipped dramatically, and even the store’s most loyal customers could not resist buying books at a discount despite the fact that it meant shopping elsewhere. Watson recalls that “What Books & Co. offered, in the face of discounting, in place of discounting, was something more personal.  The feeling was we knew who came into our shop and what they like to read.” (Bookstore, 204)

But in the end that was not enough to keep the store going, and it closed its doors in 1997.  “I didn’t know exactly what I should feel, what the bookstore represented,” she says of the store’s closing: “It was greater than any one individual’s feelings.  I felt sad that the city would lose this bookstore—if I were one of my customers, that’s what I would say.  I do feel that the bookstore, in the way its been run by me for twenty years, is anachronistic.  If the bookstore were going to continue, it would have to be totally changed, computerized, Internetted.  Books & Co. was like the last nineteenth-century bookstore in the twentieth century, almost the twenty-first.  I wish I could have passed on the mantle and I wish there were someone who would be willing to take the bookstore, invent it in a new way, a modern way, and continue to have great books, the good books, and all the readings” (Bookstore, 272)

 

 

 

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BMC-Logo

We love books. We wish there were a bumper sticker that says; I’d rather be reading. We really love it all—thrillers and mysteries, literary novels, histories, biographies, cookbooks, how-to’s, self-improvement, science and more. We started this book club years ago because we wanted to share our passion and let people know about great new books. We’ve changed and evolved over the years—some of our books would probably make the founders blush. Bottom line, our editors still want to make sure devoted fans get the latest books by their favorite authors. And we like nothing more than to introduce exciting discoveries that readers will recommend to their friends. What inspires us to do it? Simple, we love books.

—from the Book of the Month website

 

To “read” a “book” these days can mean many things.  The definition of a book can mean so many things.  But there was a time when a book was a book, and for a book to be chosen as the “Book of the Month” was to be given the book-keeping seal of approval, so to speak.

The Book of the Month Club (BOMC) was founded in New York City in 1926 by Harry Scherman, former copyrighter for J. Walter Thompson and co-founder of the “Little Leather Library,” a mail order service for miniature reprints of “great books.”  Scherman, along with partners Max Sackheim and Robert Haas, established the Club as its own household brand, going from 4,000 subscribers to 550,000 in twenty years, where they became seen as a sound selector of good books and sold titles by means of its own prestige.  A title or author did not need to have an existing reputation before being chosen as a Book of the Month, as the act of being chosen in itself was the barometer of success.

According to the list of “Privileges of Subscribers,” the Club works as follows:

Every month the best book of the month, chosen by the Selecting Committee, is sent to each subscriber (unless he specifies some other preference) and is billed at the current price set by the publisher in each case, plus the few cents for postage.  The book sent each month ranges in price from $1 to $3, but in no case more than $3.

A 1965 magazine advertisement for The Book of the Month Club

A 1965 magazine advertisement for The Book of the Month Club

When it was launched, one of BOMC’s key selling points was free access to its “selection service,” where a Selecting Committee of five members determined each month what was the “best” book to read, leaving the subscriber the peace of mind that the choice had been made democratically and thoughtfully by a committee of qualified members by secret ballot.

The original members of the Selecting Committee were:

Henry Seidel Canby (1878-1961), Chairman, a critic, editor, and professor at Yale University. He edited the Yale Review and then the Literary Review supplement of the New York Evening Post, the most influential literary weekly in the United States in its time.

Heywood Broun (1888-1939), a journalist and founder of the American Newspaper Guild best remembered for his writing on social issues and his championing of the underdog.

Dorothy Canfield (1879-1958), a best-selling author as well as an educational reformer, social activist, and best-selling American who supported women’s rights, racial equality, and lifelong education.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957), journalist, novelist, essayist and poet and the the well-known author of many books including Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.

William Allen White (1868-1944), a renowned editor, author, and leader of the Progressive movement.

This is indeed an impressive group of referees, although how much variation in taste and opinion one can find in any group of five individuals is questionable.  According to the BOMC brochure, “In order to be chosen as the “book-of-the-month,” a majority of these five individuals has to give a book first place among all the books considered.”   The Committee members decided what titles and authors would be read by the Club’s thousands of members and could create a literary success in an instant.  The brochure does go on to point out that:

It should be clearly understood that this combined judgment is not set up as being either final or infallible.  The judges themselves would be the last ones to consider it so.  It is simply a practical method of arriving at the most outstanding book each month.  The theory is—and it works!—that any book appealing strongly to five individuals (of such good judgment and such differing tastes themselves) is bound to be an outstanding book.

Enough subscribers agreed with this theory to ensure the lasting success of the BOMC into the twenty-first century.  Its status as arbiter of literary taste has diminished significantly over the years as new technologies brought new ways of bringing books to the public.  In the age of the big box stores, Amazon, Audible, iTunes, and Abe Books, not to mention sites such as Goodreads and Shelf Awareness, individual readers make informed choices based on industry recommendations and audience reviews and can “consume” their reading material in a plethora of media, only one of which is the good ol’ fashioned printed book.

Further reading:

  • The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club by Charles Lee (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1958) provides a history of the club, the book selection and membership procedures, and a list of all selections, dividends, and alternates from 1926 to 1957.
  • The Books of the Century, a website compiled by Daniel Immerwahr, lists the Club’s main selections from 1926 until the mid-1970s.
  • Janice Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill, 1997) offers a cultural analysis of the BOMC and its readers.
  • William Zinsser, A Family of Readers; An informal portrait of the Book-of-the-Month Club and its members on the occasion of its 60th Anniversary. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1986. 74 pp.

 

A letter inviting readers to subscribe to The Book of the Month Club

A letter inviting readers to subscribe to The Book of the Month Club

 

The Book of the Month Club enrollment form (1927)

The Book of the Month Club enrollment form (1927)

View a PDF of the 1927 Book of the Month Club brochure here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For a general appreciation of where you are, it helps to know who came before you and what was done.  Especially if it helps you now.
—Philip Copp in “One Track Mind”

Copp-bowlinggreenIn 1978, Philip Copp intended to spend a month working on an article about the art in New York City subway stations that he hoped to sell to a magazine.  Today, thirty-four years later, Copp, also known as Philip Ashforth Coppola, a nom de plume of sorts, has probably not spent a day during which he did not work on this “article,” now a multi-volume collection of books, some self-published in limited edition and some in manuscript form.

As he discovered the artistic riches displayed in each station, Copp was overcome by the need to record what all the engineers, architects, artisans, and artists had done, before their work faded and they were forgotten forever.  The environment underground, vandalism, and, most of all, time is eating away at the intricate mosaic designs that adorn the walls of each and every station, and many are being replaced by plain white tiles that forever erase any trace of what was once there.

Phil Copp (image: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)

Phil Copp (image: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

Jeremy Workman, a filmmaker who recently made a documentary about Copp entitled “One Track Mind,” describes his subject in an interview with Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York:

Phil is a subway historian extraordinaire. He is a regular guy from New York and New Jersey who works at a printing press. A kind sweet man. A bit on the quiet side. An avid church-goer. But he’s had this lifelong obsession with the decor and design of the New York City subway stations. He’s spent most of his adult life creating a study called “Silver Connections,” a massive homemade, self-published, illustrated encyclopedia of the decor in the stations. He’s studied it historically, artistically, and sociologically. It’s like a billion pages and it has literally thousands of amazingly detailed hand-drawn sketches and diagrams.

In the same interview, Copp describes his own work:

My study has two purposes. First, to record the art & architecture of the NYC subway stations in word and picture. Second, to reveal the persons who designed or crafted the decor. Both subjects of my study were neglected and unheralded (especially in the late 1970’s, when I began this undertaking).

Volumes from Copp's SILVER CONNECTIONS (image: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)

Volumes from Copp’s SILVER CONNECTIONS (image: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

It seems Copp is adding to Silver Connections every waking moment that he is not at work or church.  All day on weekends and most evenings, sometimes into the night.  He is a man obsessed, possessed even, single-mindedly cataloging the disappearing artwork of the 496 stations, according to his count, of the New York City subway system.

In addition to “One Track Mind,” Copp has been featured in The New York Times, on New York 1, the BBC, and even on Japanese television.  He says he enjoys getting media attention and is willing to take a day off to do interviews, but you can tell what he really wants to do is to get back to work on his magnum opus, his epic love letter to New York City.  “The city cannot be what it is without rapid transit,” he says.  “Buses are great, subways are better.”

 

Silver Connections

Silver Connections

We are very pleased to be the distributor of the newly revised 2013 edition of Silver Connections Volume I (Books 1 & 2), as well as  Silver Connections Volumes III & IV.  For more information and to purchase copies, please visit our Silver Connections page.

Watch “NYC Subway Buff Chronicles Past In Full Detail,” Jose Martiez’s piece on Phil Copp in NY1 here

To watch the film One Track Mind directed by Jeremy Workman on Amazon Instant Video, click here.

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“I learned long ago that if I go out somebody I’ve been wanting to see very badly is sure to come in.  I’ve missed so many I’ve grieved about.”

—Frances Steloff

wisemenfishheresignThe Gotham Book Mart (GBM) was an institution in literary New York for 87 years.  Founded on West 45th Street in 1920 by Frances Steloff, the shop was frequented by writers such as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Arthur Miller, John Updike, J. D. Salinger and Eugene O’Neill, and its customers included a host of prominent New Yorkers —George and Ira Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Calder, Stephen Spender, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, John Guare, Katharine Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name only a few, as well as numerous high-profile visitors who would make sure to drop in when they were passing through town. At various points, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Tennessee Williams, and Patti Smith worked as clerks there.  The shop also exhibited the works of the artist Edward Gorey and is credited with launching the artist’s career.

gotham40317Steloff is credited with supporting the careers of major writers back when they were unknown or unaccepted, including James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Although censored, Steloff sold James Joyce’s Ulysses.  She also sold D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover in the 1920’s and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer 1930’s, which led to lawsuits and landmark decisions on censorship.

Despite its renown, GBM was a very personal bookshop, as Steloff put her heart and soul into the store, working long hours and hand picking stock.  A beloved figure, Steloff was also very exacting and an economizer, and many who worked for her did not or could not meet her high standards.  She was also known to be extremely generous, sending money to writers needing to make rent or pay bills without any guarantee of repayment.

Steloff lived a childhood of abuse and poverty in Saratoga Springs and then Boston. She eventually made her way to New York City where she worked in a department store, starting in the corsets department and later moving on to the magazine subscriptions counter.  Using the connections she made, she secured several clerk positions in bookstores, the last of which was Brentano’s, a major New York bookseller.

On her way to work, Steloff often passed Sunwise Turn on Thirty-Fifth Street.  Founded by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray Clarke in 1916, this bookshop specialized in quality publications, particularly fine art books.  Taking Jenison and Mowbray as inspiration perhaps, Stelhoff took a chance and rented a 15 by 12 foot ground floor room with a window and named it Gotham Book & Art.

gotham20315W G. Rogers, in his book Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart muses that it was Steloff’s difficult and deprived childhood that propelled her toward a successful life in bookselling:

…The Gotham Book Mart, sanctuary of the written word, did in fact originate in the unliterary vacationland of Saratoga Springs.  A perceptive girl learned key lessons from hardships, developed a love for all living creatures, and grew up to have an irresistible passion for the very things she was deprived of: books and education.  Given plenty of reading matter, books might never have become a necessity and she might not have felt driven to her long-sustained efforts.  She was teased and tantalized into success.  Young Steloff and books were donkey and carrot.  (23-24)

Though a slow and an uphill climb at first—the store was open from 9 AM until midnight and Steloff alone performed all tasks, from cleaning to bookkeeping to clerking—she eventually cultivated a loyal clientele.  Her very first customer was a Broadway idol of some note who was performing in a show in the theater next door.  More theater people from the neighborhood began coming to her for books, as well as acquaintances from Brentano’s and other bookstores.  No doubt Steloff exuded an air of determination and dedication that attracted her customers and made them want to return.

Steloff’s specializations came to her by chance: theater books because she was in such close proximity to so many theaters, and art because she once bid on a collection of hunting images, only to be given Japanese woodblock prints when she went to claim her purchase.  Duped and dispirited and knowing nothing about Japanese art, she put the prints out for a dollar a piece with the hope of recouping her expenditure.  It turned out, through the tips of collectors who bought pieces from her, that the prints were true collectors pieces and could fetch much more.

After a move to Forty-Seventh Street, a divorce, and a name change to Gotham Book Mart, Steloff’s shop began taking on its identity as a place that nurtured both writers and readers.  She began stocking “Little Magazines” that printed artistic work that was not money-making for larges presses. She began her career in magazine sales, and she later supported them by displaying magazines in her shop’s window, buying magazine advertisement space, and listing the magazines in her catalogs.  Rogers explains in Wise Men Fish Here:

As editor and writers commenced to urge the untried, untested, and often inscrutable avant-garde writings on GBM, it stocked more and more of them.  The proprietor describes her role modestly: “Perhaps it would be more flattering to believe that we were prophets about the great new writers who were then emerging in these little reviews.   But on the contrary I was led step by step by opportunities, and I simply responded to the needs and requests for an outlet.”  Her customers were still educating her.  (113)

Steloff went far beyond stocking obscure literary magazines to help authors.  She often lent or even gave them money when they were in need.  She cashed checks for them found them rides and places to stay and even once tried to begin a fund for poets to give money to those most in need but found that need greatly outweighed available funds.

gothambookmart

Steloff became friendly with the writer Christopher Morley, who brought his friends Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller and W.S. “Bill” Hall to the shop where they turned the back yard of GBM into an art gallery and hangout.  Although many of the great minds of New York spent time there, it was not an intellectual salon but more of a place to have fun with like-minded peers.  Rogers explains:

It was good-fellows-get-together, laughter in the cloister, wit and fun spiced with learning.  Some of the decade’s best minds relaxed in congenial company; they dashed off doggerel, quipped in ancients and modern languages, and recited limericks that were for reciting only, not for printing. (160)

In the mid-1940s, Steloff almost went out of business, but through Christopher Morley she was able to buy a building owned by Columbia University.  After two decades at #51 she moved to #41 Forty-Seventh Street on the same block.  She continued to be exacting and and frugal in the postwar era but fewer people were willing to earn a living on her terms anymore, hard work and low pay in exchange for the opportunity to be among books.

GBM’s stock was divided into three sections, new, secondhand, and rare.  It also stocked magazines, regular and “little.”  Steloff lived in an apartment above the store and was therefore able to continue to work long hours devoting herself to the bookstore.  When Steloff turned 80, she finally decided to “retire.”  She sold the shop to Andreas Brown, a devoted customer and book lover, in 1967 on the condition that she could continue living in the apartment above the shop for the rest of her life and work at the store.  Frances Steloff died in New York in 1989 at the age of 101.

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Steloff with Andreas Brown

A New York Magazine listing for GBM describes the shop in its later years under Brown:

Owner Andreas Brown and his flock of charming misanthropes are happy to help—or engage in fiery intellectual debate—when called upon, but they’re also just as content to read in a corner and leave browsing customers alone. (Sometimes, they don’t even look up when you walk in.) While the store stocks a little bit of everything, its specialty is 20th Century Arts and Literature, so if you need a signed play by Samuel Beckett or the complete works of James Joyce, you’re in the right place.

In 2007, GBM closed its doors for good.  Brown, who had major financial difficulties, was forced to close the store, and its stock was sold in a general sale, its inventory going to The University of Pennsylvania Libraries after an anonymous donor purchased over 200,000 items worth millions of dollars and donated it to the library.

Gotham Book Mart was an icon in a particular tradition of bookselling in New York.  Like the back room of Charles Wiley’s bookshop on Reade Street in the 1820’s, known as the “Den,” and Jenison and Mowbray Clarke’s Sunwise Turn, as well as Jeanette Watson’s Books & Co. and the 21st century Greenlight Books and McNally Jackson Bookstore, GBM was always more than just a store.  To quote Rogers once again:

It is significant that she always refers to the Gotham Book Mart as a shop, not a store.  Even more in the 1920s than now, there was a distinction.  A store was for selling, a shop was for building and creating.  She always did more than sell.  If salesmanship has satisfied her, corsets would have, too.  If selling just any book had satisfied her, she would have stayed on Vesey Street where she had earned more than she did now. (78)

Yes, Frances Steloff was a builder and creator and Gotham Book Mart was most certainly a shop in the true sense—a place where writer, reader, and proprietor harmoniously coexisted and commingled, a place where the written word came alive.

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The history of the store is covered in the documentary film, Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller, directed in 1987 by Deborah Dickson.

Rogers, W G. Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Print.

Tannenbaum, Matthew. My Years at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Stelloff, Proprietor. S.l.: Worthy Shorts, 2009. Print.

 

 

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City Notebook by McCandlish Phillips

City Notebook by McCandlish Phillips

Earlier this year, New York lost one of its all-time greatest chroniclers.  Mclandlish Phillips, a reporter for the New York Times who later left journalism to spread the Gospel, became known for his local reporting, as well as his lyrical articles about vanishing institutions in an ever-changing New York.

In his 1962 collection of writings, City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York, Phillips remembers “Book Row,” the area just south of Union Square centered on Fourth Avenue that used to be New York’s used book center.  He recalls a conversation between Jack Biblio and Jack Tannen, founders of Biblio & Tannen at 63 Fourth Avenue:

“We came from a slum neighborhood—East New York in Brooklyn,” Mr. Biblio said.  “In those days, a penny was a lot, but a bunch of us were terribly interested in books and the rental of a Tarzan book in a store on Pitkin Avenue was ten cents for three days.

“Five of us kids each chipped in two cents, and all five of us read that whole book in three days.  We didn’t need a quick-reading course.”

“To work for one dollar a day in a bookstore—just to be in a bookstore—that was Nirvana,” Mr. Biblio said.  “Kids today won’t start for ninety dollars a week.  It’s nothing today for a boy ten years old to come in and pull out a ten dollar bill.  It’s quite a different world.”

“We started the business in 1928,” Mr. Tannen said.  “We slept in the back room and we worked eighteen hours a day and we each took a dollar-a-day out for the first three years.”

“We didn’t have hours.  As long as a customer was in the place, we stayed open,” Mr. Biblio said.

“If a customer came in and spent one dollar—big sale—we’d go out and have coffee and,” Mr. Tannen said, implying Danish.

Phillips’ book is chock full of anechdotes such as these, that only a seasoned reporter, who was also a seasoned New Yorker, could amass.

McCandlish Phillips getting the lowdown from a highly placed circus source (image: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

McCandlish Phillips getting the lowdown from a highly placed circus source (image: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

The breadth of Phillips’ coverage is also evidenced by the headlines to which his byline is attached, such as: “City Surlpus of Elks, Rams and Yaks Declines: High Bids Totaling $793.50 Accepted for 34 Left-Over Animals from Zoos,” “In Van Cortlandt: Bodies Washed Up on Lake Shore—Park Aide Says Silt Cut Off Oxygen,” “Singer Takes Charm to Rikers Island,” and “Aged Wait in Stony Solitude, But Not for Buses.”

Phillips’s most renowned article appeared on Page 1 on Sunday, Oct. 31, 1965, under the headline “State Klan Leader Hides Secret of Jewish Origin.”  In this article, that won him widespread praise and notice, Phillips reveals that Daniel Burros, a 28-year-old Queens man who was the Grand Dragon of the New York State Ku Klux Klan, a chief organizer of the national Klan and a former national secretary of the American Nazi Party was also a Jew — a former Hebrew school student who had been bar mitzvahed at 13.

While still working at the Times, Phillips helped found The New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a Pentecostal congregation.  In 1973, Phillips left the Times and journalism to preach the Gospel on the Columbia University campus and to work with the fellowship.  Phillips died in April of this year at the age of 85.

McClandish Phillips in 1962 (image: John Orris/The New York Times)

McCandlish Phillips in 1962 (image: John Orris/The New York Times)

Phillips will be remembered by fans of New Yorkiana for his unique flair for New York writing and his commitment to getting the story straight.  The  New York Times obituary for Phillips quotes his 1969 article about the closing of Lindy’s Delicatessen, a New York institution:

“What kind of a day is today? It’s the kind of a day that if you wanted a slice of cheesecake at Lindy’s, you couldn’t get it.”

Near the end of the article, he wrote, with plain-spoken, impeccable logic:

“The locusts stripped the place of menus and ashtrays and other mementos. There were conflicting claimants to possession of the last bagel. As a souvenir, a bagel is not much good. It is perishable and it also lacks proof. Anyone can hold up a bagel and say, ‘This is the last bagel from Lindy’s.’ ”

Phillips, McCandlish. City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York. New York: Liveright, 1974.

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HarrietSpy1When I grow up I’m going to find out everything about everybody and put it all in a book.

—Harriet M. Welsch in Harriet the Spy

 Harriet M. Welsch would have made an excellent blogger.  The title character in Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 young adult novel is a spunky Upper East Side kid with a constant burning desire to record her observations of those around her as well as her own feelings toward them.  She has probably inspired a generation of aspiring writers, including myself, to observe and record their worlds, no matter how small or mundane.

Harriet’s world revolves around her uptown neighborhood and the characters who inhabit it.  She wants to be a spy and a writer when she grows up.  And to this end, she fills notebook after notebook with notes gathered during her spy route, a series of homes she clandestinely visits each day, and snarky comments about her classmates.  Through Harriet’s eyes, we see the struggles of the local grocer’s family, the loneliness of a cat-loving bachelor, the neuroses of a bed-ridden hypochondriac, as well as many other characters, all through the eyes of an eleven-year-old child.

We also see Harriet’s life as an upper-middle-class New York kid as she is often ignored by her self-involved parents and left in the care of Old Golly, her wise and loving nurse and, after the nurse leaves the household, the cook.  When Harriet gets into a fix, she does not rely on lessons learned from her mother or father but, rather, tries to imagine what Ole Golly would advise her to do.

An illustration by the author from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

An illustration by the author from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet’s keen powers of observation get her in trouble when her classmates find and read one of her notebooks, revealing her many harsh criticisms (as well as compliments) about them.  Harriet later apologizes for her comments by printing a retraction.  The book quietly condones, within reason, eavesdropping as well as (white) lying and praises those who stick to their convictions even if it means talking back to elders.  In a letter, Old Golly tells Harriet, “Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. But to yourself you must tell the truth”

When the book was first published, some tried to have the book banned, stating that it “teaches children to lie, spy, back-talk and curse,” but this effort was unsuccessful and Harriet the Spy went on to become a juvenile classic.  It spoke to many audiences, but especially to readers who sympathized with Harriet’s status as an outsider at school.  An NPR report on the book explains:

Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy

Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy

These days, girls can read books about all kinds of kids, facing all kinds of real problems. But back in the 1960s, when Kathleen Horning, the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was growing up, the pickings were slimmer.

“There was a whole genre called the ‘tomboy story’ where a girl rebels in that way, but at the end everything is wonderful because she really is a girl and she gets very feminine,” remembers Horning.

Horning says she was a tomboy who didn’t want to reform. Later on, she realized she was a lesbian. What does that have to do with Harriet the Spy? A lot, says Horning. The book’s author Louise Fitzhugh, was also gay, and although Harriet’s sexuality is never touched on in the book, her boy’s clothes and bravado sent a message to some kids who felt different and didn’t know why.

“I have talked to so many adult lesbians who felt the same way about Harriet,” Horning says. “Particularly if you were growing up in the sixties when you really didn’t have any other people like you, Harriet was it. What the book told us is that we could be ourselves and survive.”

Harriet was a role model for all children who struggled with difference.  She shows readers, girls and boys alike, that belief in oneself, regardless of how others see you, is not only essential but liberating.  Although she apologizes publicly for what she wrote about others, she never apologizes to herself for being honest, boldly declaring, “I love myself.”  She is still the same Harriet we met at the beginning of the novel, only a bit older, and a lot wiser.

 

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet, the Spy. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

 

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